As you can tell from previous posts, I love collecting quotes – especially clever quotes from classic literature. In my search for pithy quips, I came across the wit of Oscar Wilde, author and playwright of the Victorian Era. I saw a collection of his plays at the library one day, so I picked it up to see the context of his comical one-liners.
I started with The Importance of Being Ernest, it being the most familiar title, and was surprised at how many of the quotes I had seen were taken completely out of context. This is a very fast-paced play about identity – whether it’s being mistaken, invented, or stolen. Extravagantly ridiculous personalities are painted through broad strokes of double-edged dialogue and impeccable comedic timing.
Next I read Lady Windermere’s Fan, which has a deeper theme poking fun at the marriages of the social elite. Propriety and morality are challenged and ridiculed by the high-standing aristocracy, illustrating that perhaps money cannot buy everything.
Then A Woman of No Importance. This play once again affirms the fact that there is nothing new under the sun. While keeping up a steady rhythm of humor and melodrama, Wilde explored the social and cultural ramifications of unmarried motherhood.
The final play I read was An Ideal Husband. Delving into politics and the shadier side of the business world, this could be a story written all-too recently. Blackmail and the consequences of setting loved ones on pedestals are recurring themes, as are gender roles and the virtue of self-sacrifice.
After reading the plays, I was ready to move on to Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. This morality tale is certainly the deepest of Wilde’s works, and the one that will stick with me the longest. In a way, it reminded me of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; Wilde’s descriptive powers bear striking resemblance to those of the famed British authoress. There is something arresting about the development of characters, such that their qualities cannot be casually skimmed over or their actions quickly forgotten. Though there is scrutiny over gender models in this narrative, other literary examples of the time should be taken into consideration for context. (As a side note, the character description of Dorian in the novel bears no resemblance whatsoever to the actor in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.)
I usually add favorite quotes in my book reviews, but I think that would be doing Mr. Wilde a disservice, as so many of his epigrams have been taken out of context; instead of satirically insightful, they come across as shallow and elitist. So I’ll just recommend that you read these short works for yourself. Even better, assemble a troupe of friends to read one of the plays some afternoon.